Wed, Nov 22, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Aged US motorist spared jail for pedestrian deaths

LIGHTER SENTENCE Declared guilty of manslaughter punishable by 18 years in prison, a judge said the man only escaped on probation because of heart problems


An elderly motorist who killed 10 people and injured more than 70 when he plowed through a street market was sentenced to five years probation on Monday by a judge who said the defendant was callous and deserved prison but was now so ill that confinement would be costly and likely fatal.

George Russell Weller, 89, was not in court to hear Superior Court Judge Michael Johnson denounce him for indifference to the plight of his victims and for a "stubborn and bullheaded refusal to accept responsibility and put this matter to rest for himself and everyone else."

Weller was 86 when his Buick Le Sabre plowed through Santa Monica's farmers market on July 16, 2003, after colliding with another car. Moving at highway speed, he left a trail of victims aged seven months to 78 years.

The case ignited debate over licensing of elderly drivers, but on Oct. 20 the jury returned the most severe verdict -- guilty on 10 counts of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence, punishable by 18 years in prison.

Defense attorney Mark Overland insisted after sentencing that it had been an accident and not a crime.

"Any time an innocent man is sentenced it's not the right thing," Overland said.

District attorney's spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons said that it was necessary to try the case and that justice was served.

There was no answer to a knock on the door of the Santa Monica residence of Weller and his wife.

In a lengthy explanation of the sentence, Johnson said he would never understand Weller's reaction after the accident, in which witnesses said they heard him ask some victims: "Why didn't you get out of my way?"

As Weller spoke those words, the judge said, there was a dead body draped over the windshield of his car and rescuers were trying frantically to help a woman who had been dragged and horribly disfigured by the vehicle.

"In plain sight of this he said: `Just think how I felt' and `Why didn't you get out of my way?'" the judge said.

"These are unbelievably callous statements," the judge said.

"I'm convinced that Mr. Weller deserves to go to prison," the judge said, but he added he believed doctors' reports that Weller has severe heart disease, though he is currently stable.

"I don't see any purpose of sending Mr. Weller to jail or prison," the judge said. "It would not do anybody any good."

Weller did not testify, but a tape of his interview with police after the accident was played at trial. He said he did everything to try to stop, including trying to throw the gearshift knob into park. The defense argued that it was a case of "pedal error," in which Weller panicked and mistook the car's accelerator for the brake.

"Like the jury I have a lot of trouble accepting those concepts," the judge said, noting Weller managed to steer well enough to choose to hit people rather than parked cars. "There were places along the farmers market where Mr. Weller literally threaded the needle through very narrow gaps."

The judge ordered US$101,700 in restitution, fees and fines.

The sum included US$57,500 in restitution to families of two victims.

The judge ruled after hearing emotional statements from the family of Lynn Ann Weaver, a 47-year-old woman who was killed. She was the daughter-in-law of the late TV star Dennis Weaver and was active in charitable causes. Her brother, sisters, daughter and husband spoke about their grief and their wish that Weller apologize.

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